Riley Ruiz ‘15 had the opportunity to study the Bible with Dr. John Perkins during a recent trip to Jackson, Mississippi.
A Journey of Transformation
A group of Ontario Christian students spent their spring break in Jackson, Mississippi, serving the community and studying the Bible with Civil Rights leader John Perkins. Two juniors, Riley Ruiz and Jonathan Escobedo, share how this experience has challenged and shaped them.
After working long hours in 80 degree-heat with humidity, Jonathan Escobedo was ready to call it a day. A request for ice sent him to a local market. Exhausted, Jonathan was reluctant but agreed to go. His tiredness vanished when the street where the market was located came into view. The locals who accompanied him told him it was the most run-down street in Jackson, Mississippi.
“It struck me such inequality exists between us and them,” said Jonathan ‘15. “I remember praying that night, asking God, ‘Would there ever be equality there?’”
He still thinks about the purpose behind this experience since he returned from Jackson, where he and his teammates worked with the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation during Easter break. This trip was the capstone of their year-long class in Principles of Biblical Justice; where they studied God’s heart for shalom — peace, goodness, fullness, justice — and how far humans have departed from God’s commands to care for the poor. They also read books by John Perkins, who has dedicated his life to loving his enemies and advocating reconciliation across racial and economic lines.
When the students visited Mendenhall, a city with a population of 2,550, they recalled it was where Dr. Perkins was arrested and tortured by policemen in 1969. Son of a sharecropper, Perkins grew up in poverty with his grandmother when his mother died and his father abandoned him. He fled Mississippi after his older brother, a veteran with a Purple Heart, was shot to death by a deputy marshal. He moved to Southern California, and, by God’s grace, became a Christian and later a pastor. Sensing a call from God, he moved his family to Mississippi to start ministries, sharing the Good News to the poor. Meanwhile, he saw the systemic injustice permeating in the lives of the poor — police brutality, unpaved streets, school segregation, just to name a few. He decided to preach the Good News and boycott white-owned stores in Mendenhall to demand better living conditions for the blacks.
As Riley Ruiz ‘15 trod on the same place where the boycotters encountered the police more than 40 years ago, she heard a Christian music station blaring “Do Something” by Matthew West. She couldn’t believe how timely the song was. Here is how the lyrics go:
“Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, ‘God, why don’t You do something?’
He said, ‘I did, I created you’”
She thought about Dr. Perkins who left a comfortable life in California to march for a reason bigger than himself.
“As Christians, God calls us to do something,” Riley said. “I was shocked it wasn’t just our job to live a life of service in Jackson but everywhere we are.”
In the morning the students had the honor of studying the Bible with Dr. Perkins, a prolific author who holds 11 honorable doctorates from universities including Wheaton, Seattle Pacific, and University of Virginia at Lynchburg. The students were surprised to see that Dr. Perkins, now well into his 80’s, had a great, infectious laugh and sometimes more energy than they did.
“I’ve never seen anyone more in love with God,” Riley said of Dr. Perkins.
They were also surprised to see that he didn’t look back into the past, recounting his sufferings or accomplishments. Instead he wanted to know all about them. He joked with them and gave them nicknames. Spending time with him made Riley realize the purpose of her trip.
“It’s rare to see kids stand up for their faith, and that’s what he ultimately wants — people who are bold in their faith and get out of their comfort zone.”
She saw his hope in action as the staff of John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation taught the children computer, music and Bible lessons, to help them become Christian leaders in their neighborhood.
When it was time to leave Jackson, Riley cried, remembering the pain of poverty as well as the love that Dr. Perkins and his staff had for Jackson. The concept of shalom became real for her. She thought about her faith, how she let her busy schedule as a softball and soccer player dictate her devotional time with God. Now she sets time aside specifically for reading the Bible and journaling before going to sleep.
“It made me realize that before the trip I did not devote enough time to Christ as much as He deserves. He deserves a lot more than what I gave him.”
She and Jonathan agreed that just as important as seeing their personal lives changed by the trip, they wanted to bring the passion and love back to Ontario Christian. Their eyes are opened, and they have started seeing students in school who could use some love and encouragement. Jonathan started to invite a fellow classmate to have lunch with him and his friends. Riley takes the time to look at other students in the eye, saying hi with a smile. To be Christian leaders, they learned, means to take the extra mile to love those around them.
The trip to Jackson has transformed how he looks at life, Jonathan said. He now has a burning desire to help others. One idea he is thinking about is to become a firefighter after college. Being a firefighter means sacrificing one’s own security and comfort and to give back to the community, he said.
“It’s our job to bring equality, even if it’s not in Jackson but around here,” he said. “It takes us to work in the community and not be afraid to get dirty.”